by Leigh Bardugo
Criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker has been offered wealth beyond his wildest dreams. But to claim it, he'll have to pull off a seemingly impossible heist:
Break into the notorious Ice Court
(a military stronghold that has never been breached)
Retrieve a hostage
(who could unleash magical havoc on the world)
Survive long enough to collect his reward
(and spend it)
Kaz needs a crew desperate enough to take on this suicide mission and dangerous enough to get the job done - and he knows exactly who: six of the deadliest outcasts the city has to offer. Together, they just might be unstoppable - if they don't kill each other first.
I can't remember the last time I read a book and fell so head-over-heels in love with an entire group of characters.
People have been recommending Six of Crows to me for a long time now. Not only have I seen so many other readers bursting with love about this book, and its sequel Crooked Kingdom, but friends of mine such as the lovely Natalie @ A Sea Change have been singing its praises for what must be an age. It's a book I've always meant to get to - who doesn't love a heist story? - but this year I finally sat back, opened it up and was sucked into the seedy underbelly of Leigh Bardugo's fantasy world.
As someone who hasn't read Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy this world was entirely new to me, and I loved it. 2018 feels like the year in which I'm rediscovering my first love, fantasy, after several years of being intimidated by it for a reason I still can't quite put my finger on, and Ketterdam has to be one of my favourite fantastical places now purely because Bardugo brings it to life so vividly.
While Ravka, which we hear of but don't go to in this book, seems to be a Russian-inspired country, there's no doubt in my mind that Ketterdam is a fantastical version of Amsterdam, with its waterways, merchant-run economy, and the entire districts whose cogs are kept whirring by a constant stream of gambling and prostitution. The Barrel, not at all dissimilar from Amsterdam's Red Light District, is ruled by gangs, and one gangster in particular has Ketterdam in his pocket.
Kaz Brekker is one of the most compelling protagonists I have come across in a fantasy novel in a long time. From the blurb I thought he would be very different to the kind of boy he is, but I love how Bardugo has imagined him; she straddles the line between 'criminal prodigy' and 'only a 17 year old' beautifully, creating a character who's had to grow up far too fast and has the dirt of the worst and best of humanity wedged under his fingernails. He's like that first sip of a bitter coffee in human form. It was also so refreshing to read about a protagonist who needs the assistance of a cane to walk and I'd like more protagonists like this please!
What makes Six of Crows really sing is its characters. The setting is brilliant and the plot is wonderful, but the characters are what make this book - dare I say it - perfect. Alongside Kaz we have his right-hand woman Inej Ghafa, who was stolen from her home and her family as a child and sold into human trafficking before she began working for the Dregs. Known as the Wraith, she's an expert at going undetected and is yet another example of Bardugo's wonderfully complex characters. Inej's faith is important to her and her morality is something she struggles with when she has essentially become Kaz's personal assassin, but how else is she supposed to survive in a land that sees her as a commodity that can be sold for profit?
I loved Bardugo's exploration of religion through Inej and through Matthias, another protagonist from Fjerda, the country next to Ravka, who has essentially been raised in a cult of witch hunters whose own religion teaches that Grisha aren't human. Like all six of the protagonists in Six of Crows, Matthias has found himself washed up in Ketterdam by accident, beginning the novel in prison thanks to a Grisha, Nina, who serves as another protagonist. I'll be saying this for all of them, but I loved Nina, too. A child soldier from Ravka, she was forced to work with Matthias, a boy trained to kill her, after the ship they were on sank and they found their way to Ketterdam. Nina is bubbly and vivacious and loves food - who doesn't? - and I particularly loved her friendship with Inej. There's no competition between them, just the utmost affection and respect and when I say I want more female friendships this is what I mean.
Then we have Jesper Fahey, another member of the Dregs who loves gambling and guns a little too much, but another character who is complex and, though flawed, incredibly loyal to Kaz. I adored his sense of humour and his shameless bisexuality. Finally there's Wylan, a boy with a knack for explosives and keeping secrets. He's the kind of character that grows on you as the story progresses, and once you get to know him you can't help but love him.
Six of Crows works because each of its protagonists are fleshed out and such fun to follow separately, but they also have brilliant chemistry as a group, too, which is for the best considering they have to rely on each other to pull off a heist that's believed to be impossible. Kaz makes a deal with one of Ketterdam's merchants to break into the Fjerdan Ice Court - a place that has never been breached - and smuggle out a prisoner associated with a drug that, when used on Grisha, turns them into unstoppable weapons who crave the drug more and more and eventually die as nothing more than husks of their previous selves.
Kaz doesn't take on this mission out of the goodness of his heart to liberate the Grisha who are being mistreated or to bring order back to the world of the merchants, he takes on the mission because each of them will be rewarded with an inordinate amount of money that will pay off their individual debts and set them up comfortably for life. What ensues is a twisty, turny heist story that keeps you guessing at every turn and makes you genuinely worry for the characters' safety. I love that Bardugo doesn't make this story safe. Kaz has a plan and his plan has a plan, but when things go wrong - and they really do - these kids are forced to improvise if they're going to live to claim their reward.
It's been a few months now since I finished this book and I'm still thinking about it. The plotting and character development is exquisite. I fell for this book and these characters and this world so hard, and it's safe to say that this duology is now one of my all-time favourite series and this book has definitely earned a spot on my favourite books of all-time list. It was such fun to read, and it reignited not only my love for fantasy but also my love for YA done well. I escaped into a different world where all the threats and the tears and the love and the smiles felt real, and I will be gushing about it for a long time. And I'm not sorry.